Huffpost’s “Listen to America” Tour Promotes Dialogue in Dearborn
*This is an opinion piece I wrote before I had been asked to join the CFPCA’ Dean’s Delegate program last semester.
On Tuesday October 3rd, I was invited by my professor, Dr. Hayg Oshagan, to join him at a town hall meeting event at the Byblos Banquet center in Dearborn for the online publication Huffpost’s “Listen to America” road trip, presented in partnership with the Arab American News (AAN), Dearborn’s weekly newspaper. Dr. Oshagan teaches my mass communications course at Wayne State University. This was a very exciting opportunity for me as a brand new transfer student of journalism and communication studies, and as a complete newcomer to the southeast side of Michigan.
The stated reason for Huffpost’s seven-week-long tour of 25 cities in the heart of America is “to respond to the major criticism that national media was not listening to middle America,” as explained by Huffpost writer Rowaida Abdelaziz during opening remarks, and the perception “that the coastal cities had a very different perspective of what was happening in this country.” This series of events offers a platform for residents in the heart of the United States to speak about their experiences and their perspectives on what is happening in their communities. In the 11 cities visited before arriving in metro Detroit, Huffpost’s “Listen To America” has offered a great variety of Americans the opportunity to share their stories.
The tour by Huffpost is more than pertinent now, since the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States, when so many marginalized American citizens feel silenced by the leaders of our country. Even before winning the election, the president made blanket statements against immigrants, Latinos, and Muslims. Since Trump’s election, incidents involving racism and even violence directed at these groups have been on the rise. A recent example is the attack on counter-protesters at the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, VA. The president has signed executive orders for multiple travel bans always aimed at Muslim-majority countries, and has discontinued the Obama-era program Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which protected children brought to the country illegally by their parents. Actions like these justifiably inspire fear in these ethnic minority communities across the country.
“America is listening, so we better talk.” Osama Siblani, publisher and founder of Arab American News, and the event’s moderator, stated in his opening remarks. “Now we have an opportunity to let America hear our concerns.”
Often viewed as the nation’s Arab American capital, Dearborn is home to the highest concentration of Muslims in the United States. By choosing to include Dearborn, Huffpost gave an opportunity to these citizens to open up about the harm that has been inflicted upon their community since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
The staffs of Huffpost and AAN also partnered to write an article published on Huffpost, the AAN, website and in Saturday’s AAN paper. The article outlines the issues highlighted by the panel. Specifically, the article stated that Dearborn- population of 65,000 has the second highest number of people on the terror watch list after New York City, population of 8 million. Among the key sources for this article was Nassar Baydoun, president of the American Civil Rights League. Baydoun also spoke at the town hall meeting Tuesday, “They would take you into a room, make you give them all your electronics and all your passwords, give them your credit cards and all your documents.” he explained the extreme process he has to go through every time he travels because he is on the watch list. “After about three or four hours they would call Washington and they’d get clearance to release you. … This was every single time. I got to know the agents, I got to know the supervisors but they could not do anything because you are on that list. They have to follow the protocol.”
One of the panel speakers, Fadwa Hammoud, trustee of Dearborn’s board of education, and Wayne country prosecutor, told her own story of coming to the United States as an 11-year-old immigrant, who didn’t speak English, “When I came here I saw everything that was beautiful about this country.” she said. Despite her love for America, she is concerned for the Muslim students of Dearborn who face threats and discrimination from members of their own regional community. “Our students are constantly on the defensive, they live in an unfair world where they have to answer for the actions for a few extremists. … They know that after the Las Vegas shooting, no white child would have to answer those difficult questions for the over 60 year old white male’s actions.”
People in various positions in their community, many of them immigrants, attended the event and shared personal stories of the discrimination they have faced and witnessed. Dave Abdallah, one of the top realtors in the United States, who immigrated from Lebanon when he was nine years old, talked about the pride and love his family has for this country, where they found freedom and rights that they didn’t have in their home country. In his work as a realtor, Abdallah has heard many comments from people wanting to leave the Dearborn area to get away from the Arab and Muslim population. “They’re listening to the wrong media outlets that put that type of an image of an Arab American and of a Muslim, and that’s not who we are.” One young man who arrived at the event accidentally, spoke about the need to celebrate each other’s differences and supporting other’s voices.
Before moving to metro Detroit, I had not been aware that nearly half of Dearborn’s population is made up of Arab Americans, as Siblani stated in his remarks. However I was aware of discrimination against Arab Americans from reports in the news media. Hearing so many of Dearborn residents’ personal experiences with discrimination was overwhelming. Growing up on the west side of the state, in a mostly white community, I was nearly completely ignorant of the amount of diversity that exists in the metro Detroit area. One of the biggest reasons I decided to study at WSU was to have the opportunity to meet people with stories vastly different from my own. I’m so grateful to have gotten the chance to learn more about the trials faced by different ethnic groups in my own home state. Any student would be lucky to attend such an eye-opening event and hear people’s personal stories firsthand. Huffpost’s “Listen to America” tour was the perfect first event for an aspiring journalism student, because there is nothing more important than listening to and raising the voices of individuals who are often alienated from important conversations. Communicating about the issues we face is the only way to see progress in our communities and our country as a whole.